Well, that was a little on the bleak side. Eastbound & Down has a way of punishing us for liking Kenny Powers by reminding us at pertinent intervals that the show’s protagonist isn’t just a badass antihero: He’s also something of a rank sociopath incapable of empathizing with other people or taking responsibility for his actions. In most episodes, that noxious self-absorption and relentless self-aggrandizement manifests itself in Kenny behaving like a world-class jerk. Tonight, however, he behaves more like a monster.
When we last caught up with Kenny he was boogying in a wired haze while his best friend Shane crashed to the ground after inhaling a fuck-ton of cocaine. As “Chapter 17” opens, Kenny responds to Shane’s overdose in the least responsible possible fashion. Rather than calling 911 and trying to save Shane’s life, Kenny does more cocaine (no use letting it all go to waste), hides evidence of his wrongdoing and then, as a final flourish of flagrant jackassery, decides to help himself to Shane’s truck.
At his core, Kenny is a cold-hearted, cold-blooded motherfucker. He sees the world largely as a mirror that reflects back to him his own awesomeness. So when Kenny discovers that Shane has a buttoned-up identical twin brother who is nothing like his irresponsible double, he tries to get Shane’s twin to channel his dead sibling from beyond the grave so that he can deliver a posthumous pep talk to make Kenny feel better about his best friend’s death.
But where Shane idolized Kenny and wanted to be just like him (it feels a little weird writing about Shane in the past tense at this early juncture), his twin sees right through Kenny. To the twin, and to Shane’s family, Kenny is nothing more than a perpetual 18-year-old who has taken advantage of Shane’s absence to make off with his ridiculous truck. If Kenny behaves unconscionably throughout “Chapter 17,” however, Stevie behaves even worse.
Stevie stops just short of doing an elaborate victory dance on Shane’s corpse to express his barely concealed joy at his primary rival being put out of commission permanently. Kenny has to remind Stevie not to flash a big Colgate smile of utter delight when posing with Shane’s cadaver at the funeral home—but the worst is yet to come.
“Chapter 17” is almost too dark and too creepy to be funny. Stevie is capable of child-like innocence at his best and most idealistic but tonight he behaves like a character in a Todd Solondz film—and not one of the chipper, well-adjusted ones, either. At Shane’s funeral, the increasingly adultery-obsessed Stevie spies Shane’s sister looking raw and desperate and half-mad with grief and takes advantage of her vulnerable state by fucking her in what remarkably only qualifies as the episode’s second-most disturbing sex scene involving Stevie. Just when it appears that Stevie cannot behave more abominably, he immediately flees his sad little funeral hook-up with a few coldly mumbled words and vomits all over himself. The tender music that accompanies Stevie’s sex scene with Shane’s sister somehow makes it even sadder.
Kenny, meanwhile, decides that Shane’s funeral should be less a memorial for his dead friend than a tasteless celebration of himself. I wrote earlier that “Chapter 17” is almost too creepy, dark, and sad to be funny, but I laughed out loud when Kenny brings a clunky boombox to the funeral (because nothing says “funeral” quite like the antiquated technology of yesteryear) so that he can blast Candlebox’s “Far Behind” as the preamble to his eulogy.
How fucking perfect is the choice of “Far Behind?” It’s a slab of grunge-era kitsch that adroitly captures Shane and Kenny’s taste in pop culture—or rather lack thereof. Continuing the theme of bad taste and abysmal judgment, Kenny uses the funeral to declare that he has now attained Shane’s power in addition to boasting the incredible life force that is Kenny Powers. While Shane’s family looks on in horror, Kenny uses the boom box to play Shane’s favorite song: the painfully ironic Pearl Jam anthem “Alive.” Kenny and Stevie both see Shane’s death as a weird victory for themselves: Stevie coldly crowns himself the winner in his power struggle with Shane while theTop Gun-obsessed Kenny sees Shane’s death as incontestable proof that he is Tom Cruise to Shane’s Goose since just like Goose, Shane is now dead.
Yes, shit got real in “Chapter 17” and really, really dark and creepy. It would be hard to top the bad vibes, terrible judgment and awful sex of the funeral sequence but the episode delves into even more disturbing territory when it closes with Stevie’s wife sodomizing him with a strap-on in an unfortunate homage to a favorite porn-film fantasy. Stevie is clearly racked with guilt and shame but that doesn’t keep him from behaving in a manner that makes Kenny look chivalrous and honorable by comparison.
It takes an awful lot of chutzpah to kill off a character like Shane after only three episodes, but Eastbound & Down is refreshingly unafraid to take huge risks, whether that means killing off a seemingly major character or daring us not to hate Kenny and Stevie in light of their monstrously selfish behavior.
“Chapter 17” pulls back from the brink just a little bit at the very end, but the show’s idea of sentimentality entails Kenny reading his young son a colorfully censored, ostensibly child-friendly Letter To Penthouse in a playroom Kenny has had changed into some weird black-light stoner porn palace. Oh, and it appears that April may not be entirely out of the picture after all. After a whole lot of darkness, “Chapter 17” ends by letting just a tiny little glimmer of hope enter Kenny’s dark, shadowy, and haunted existence.
- Things Kenny thinks are worth fearing: bears, fires, and angel dust. That’s about it.
- You’ve got to love any funeral that involves a mourner playing air guitar to “Far Behind”
- “With a name like Spurgeon, you know he gets pussy,” enthuses a sex-fixated Stevie disturbingly enough
- The Ivan rivalry stuff added an element of levity to an episode that desperately needed it.
- RIP Shane, we barely knew ya.